The path from drug addict to religious fundamentalist is a well-trodden one. In the late 1960s through the seventies the movement dubbed as the ‘Jesus Freaks’ abandoned flower power for the Prince of Peace, helped on their way by joints and LSD. The Jewish corollary saw Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach bring hippies into the fold through his “House of Love and Prayer.”
Jihadism is no different and although many jihadi recruits have not experimented with mind altering substances, there is a strong component which has. We are not talking here about the well-documented financial and paramilitary connections between terrorist groups and drug cartels, although as investigative journalist Don Winslow, who has covered drug cartels and terrorism for 15 years writes “our drug policies have driven these groups into each other’s bloodstained arms.”
We’re talking about terrorists who take drugs. So what is the connection?
“Drug use and religion are symptoms of a culture responding to trauma,” writes Dr. Gary Winship, a professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK with over 30 years of experience in psychotherapy in Addictive Personalities and Why People Take Drugs: The Spike and the Moon. Properly constructed, religion provides a framework for millions worldwide to make sense of their lives and cope with the inevitable traumas they will face.
However, many do not have the skills or support structures to cope with feelings like alienation, humiliation, marginalization and crises of identity. “People commonly fall into addiction because they begin using drugs to mask particular emotions that they are going through,” drug prevention organization Recovery Connection writes. “The abuse makes them feel good and forget about the problem at hand.”
Others are drawn to drugs from a sense of curiosity or experimentation. There is a documented correlation between higher intelligence and drug use, which researchers chalk up to the idea intelligent people are more likely to try out new things.
These two groups of drug users map onto two categories of jihadi foreign fighters, as delineated by the U.N. Office of Counter Terrorism. There is a more intelligent, well-educated, more ideologically driven category of foreign terrorist fighter. Then there is a less-educated “foot soldier” category that is more likely to be socially marginalized, economically disenfranchised and drawn to jihadism for less ideological reasons.
Both of these categories of jihadists have been documented taking drugs, which is not surprising since the same alienating factors which push people to numb the pain of being with drugs can also push them to seek meaning and identity in a cult (like jihadism).
“It is estimated that some 80 percent of new recruits to the global Salafi jihad are children and grandchildren of Muslim émigrés who have felt alienated from their host cultures,” an article in the Brown Journal of World Affairs said in 2007. “This alienation is the driving force behind not only Islamist radicalization but also the radicalization that results in more quotidian political and social violence.”
Similarly a 2016 paper by the Radicalization Awareness Network sees author Magnus Ranstorp cite “alienation and exclusion; anger and frustration; grievance and a strong sense of injustice; feelings of humiliation” and “lack of social cohesion and self-exclusion” as drivers to radicalization.
Compare this to what Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs writes as an explanation for drug addiction:
“Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”
Take the case of John Georgelas, the highly intelligent Texan who converted to Islam, changed his named to Yahya and became a leading figure in the Islamic State. According to Graeme Wood, Yahya wrote an essay called ‘Cannabis’ in which he defended drug taking from classical Islamic sources. Confident in his own theological chops, he interpreted an obscure hadith to indicate that Muhammed himself used magic mushrooms to justify tripping with his wife.
Khaled Sharrouf, the Australian jihadist who gained international prominence after a picture of his seven-year-old son holding a severed head aloft in Syria went viral, took a different trajectory. He was a school dropout who became heavily involved in drug use and then criminality and was eventually introduced to Islamic extremism through criminal contacts.
Authorities say his sustained use of amphetemines, ecstasy and LSD triggered mental illness and made him paranoid and that he turned to religion to calm down.
Neuroscience still has a long way to go, but what we know so far indicates that hard drugs impact the brain in a very similar way to religious experiences. A 2016 study scanned the brains of 19 Mormons while showing them a variety of uplifting religious content aimed at triggering feelings of worship and spirituality. The study found that the parts of the brain which lit up are the same reward circuits which light up in response to drugs.
Of course different drugs impact the brain in different ways. However, many induce a feeling of relaxation and euphoria that can be both addictive and act to distract the person from stress or problems they may be facing.
Many drug users, especially those taking opiods, can get caught in a spiral of attempting to get back to the blissed-out state of peace they experienced in their first high, a phenomenon colloquially known as “chasing the dragon.” They may also become mentally destabilized leaving them more susceptible than a more mentally robust person to a convincing sounding pitch from a charismatic recruiter.
For those who want out, religion can fill that gap in meaning, either in a positive or negative way. It is no coincidence that the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous includes as step three that the recovering alcoholic “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
You may notice the similarity with the Islamic concept of “submission to the will of Allah.” That’s because it is very similar.
Sheikh Usama Hasan of the Quilliam Foundation writes that some “young Muslims are so guilt-ridden by hedonistic lifestyles that they will do anything to redeem themselves, thus becoming vulnerable to terrorist recruitment.” The promise of absolution for sin remains as powerful a psychological driver today as it did when Pope Urban II promised a free ticket to heaven for any Christian who took up the cross to fight the “saracens” in 1095.
If no healthy solutions are available, radical ideologies like Islamic extremism provide a ready-made answer to all of one’s problems and a community to help a person out, even though that answer is ultimately toxic and destructive.
The connections do not end with radicalization being a plausible path to salvation after a life of sin, nor with the search for meaning leading a curious and alienated person to sample drugs and extremist ideology as part of their quest for answers to the problem of meaning.
ISIS also dopes its fighters to keep them ready to kill.
“They gave us drugs,” a 19 year old ISIS fighter captured by Kurdish forces told CNN. “Hallucinogenic pills that would make you go to battle not caring if you live or die.”
The so-called “jihadist’s drug” is reportedly Captagon, a synthetic amphetamine manufactured in Syria. ISIS is said to both manufacture and sell the drug as well as giving it to its soldiers. Captagon is reportedly used by many different armed factions in Syria’s civil war.
The drug produces “a kind of euphoria” Lebanese psychiatrist Ramzi Haddad told The Guardian. “You’re talkative, you don’t sleep, you don’t eat, you’re energetic.”
As a model for understanding the contemporary jihadi movement it is important to look at why the extremist ideology, which offers a very nihilistic and totalitarian vision of the world, might be appealing.
In addition to exposing the true nature of the threat posed by radicalism and the ideas which are behind it, addressing these psychosocial elements of alienation could go a long way to limiting the appeal of the toxic ideology of Islamism.